Can NL focus on AL?

Jul 11, 2006 6:55 AM

The All Star festivities occupy the first part of this week as the figurative half way point of the major league season has arrived.

Baseball’s movers and shakers are congregating in Pittsburgh for Tuesday night’s All Star game with regular season play resuming Thursday.

The All Star break affords managers a chance to rearrange their starting rotations. General managers plot a course for the remainder of the season, determining whether teams will be buyers or sellers as the trading deadline approaches at the end of July.

A general rule of thumb has been that teams 10 or more games out of first place by the All Star break have little to no chance of making up that ground over the next 2½ months. Therefore teams should look to strengthen themselves for the future by trading veterans to contending teams in return for highly thought of prospects.

If this line of reasoning were that simple, then 11 teams would comprise this season’s list of sellers, including the entire NL East except for the New York Mets. Of course the availability of a Wild Card playoff team in each league changes this somewhat. In fact, all four of the Mets’ foes in the NL East are within 10 games of the Wild Card. That’s closer than in the Divisional race.

Second place Philadelphia, for example, trails the Mets by a dozen games but a more surmountable 5½ games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Wild Card chase. It works the other way too. Seattle is 14½ games out of the lead for the AL Wild Card, but the last place Mariners are just 2½ from the lead currently shared by Oakland and Texas.

Putting it all together only four AL teams (Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City and Tampa Bay) and just two NL (Chicago and Pittsburgh) have little hope of making a charge for the postseason based upon their records at the All Star break. Every other team is within 10 games of either their division lead or Wild Card.

With just a half dozen white flag wavers, this season’s trading frenzy should be quite interesting. The number of buyers far exceeds the number of sellers. Even a team such as the Florida Marlins, thought of to be a certain seller of talent at the deadline, is just seven games from the Wild Card lead.

The Marlins are still expected to part with some of their top veteran talent. However, management could rethink their position, at worst stand pat, and hope for the best. After all, Florida’s roster, laden with inexperience, continues to mature.

Home teams are winning at just under 54 percent so the ability to succeed on the road may be the determining factor in several division races and the Wild Card. The Detroit Tigers have the best record in all of baseball, largely due to their astounding 33-15 mark away from home. No other team is more than nine games above .500 on the road. And San Diego, 25-16 on the road, actually has a losing record at home (23-24).

Scoring is up by more than a half run per game through the same time last season with total combined runs of 9.80 this season and 9.28 in 2005. The increased scoring is further reflected in the ”˜Over/Under’ results. Through the All Star break in 2005, there were 61 more UNDERs than OVERs. Nearly 53 percent of all non-pushes resulted in ”˜unders.’ This season there have been 68 more ”˜overs’ than ”˜unders’ with those percentages nearly identically reversed.

As the second half begins, keep an eye on both Houston and Oakland. Both teams have played great baseball following the All Star break in recent seasons and are very much in contention to make the playoffs despite realatively disappointing starts. Oakland is tied for first in the AL West, but just two games over .500. The Astros start the second semester three games below .500.

And watch out for Atlanta! Although its streak of 14 straight NL East titles is likely over (trailing the Mets by 13 games), they begin second half play 6½ out of the Wild Card lead. At nine games below .500, the Braves have to climb over eight teams. But they have started to play better over the past week or so and the experience of hitters Chipper and Andruw Jones and pitcher John Smoltz should hold the Braves together in coming weeks. Atlanta is clearly a long shot, but experience counts for a lot when other teams start losing four, five or six games in a row.

Here’s a look at four series that begin post All Star break play.

ROCKIES/REDS: The teams have met twice this season, splitting their two games in Colorado in early May. This is a four game series beginning Thursday. Both have struggled recently after strong starts. In fact, each is several games below .500 over the last 50 games. Both have gotten better than expected pitching from their starters and their bullpens. Cincinnati’s offense has been wildly volatile, just as capable of scoring double digits as being shut out. Colorado’s offense has been more stable and pretty average.

Preferred plays: UNDERDOG +125. OVER 9 any matchup. OVER 10 if Aaron Harang or Bronson Arroyo doesn’t start for Cincinnati and if Jason Jennings isn’t pitching for Colorado

DODGERS/CARDS: This first meeting is a four game series beginning Thursday. St. Louis has struggled with its starting rotation much of the season with only ace Chris Carpenter enjoying a solid year. The offense has been more erratic than expected, but still strong with Albert Pujols. The Dodgers have a pair of aces in Brad Penny and Derek Lowe. but their success has hinged largely on an offense that has been amongst the best in the NL. Nomar Garciaparra is an All-Star.

Preferred plays: LA as underdogs in starts by Penny or Lowe or +140 facing Carpenter. OVER 9 in any matchup not involving Penny, Lowe or Carpenter. CARDS -130 against other than Penny or Lowe.

A’S/RED SOX: First meeting. Oakland has three solid starters in Barry Zito, Joe Blanton and Danny Haren. Boston’s staff is more veteran laden with Curt Schilling, Josh Becket and Tim Wakefield each having strong seasons. Rookie lefthander Jon Lester has had several solid efforts, but has not lasted past 6. Jonathan Papelbon sports an ERA of 0.59 in 46 innings with just three blown saves in 40 appearances.

Preferred plays: A’S as an underdog in starts by Zito, Haren or Blanton. RED SOX as dogs in a start by Lester. UNDER 9 if Zito, Haren or Blanton oppose Schilling, Lester or Wakefield. Otherwise OVER 9.

CHISOX/YANKS: This three game weekend series marks the first meeting. The White Sox are even stronger than last season with the addition of Jim Thome to the offense and a solid five man starting rotation. The Yankees have a potent offense that has shown inconsistency since injuries shelved both Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield. The Yanks also have major concerns in their starting rotation with Mike Mussina being the only consistent starter. Randy Johnson has fared better at home than on the road, allowing two earned runs or less in 5 of 9 home starts compared to just twice in 10 road efforts.

Preferred plays: WHITE SOX as underdogs in any matchu. SOX +130 facing Mussina or Johnson. UNDER 9 or higher in starts by Mussina or Johnson. OVER 9 if any other Yankee starts.